Voltaire offers his satirical view of society and nobility in Candide, a novel that was published first in France in 1759 and is often considered the author's most important work-representative of the Enlightenment period.
Also known as Candide: or, the Optimist in its English translation, the novella begins with a young man being indoctrinated by optimism and follows the character as he faces the harsh reality outside of his protected upbringing.
Ultimately, the work concludes that optimism must be approached realistically, as opposed to the indoctrinated approach of his Leibnizian teachers who thought "all is for the best" or "best of all possible worlds."
Read on to explore a few of the quotes from this great literary work below, in order of their appearance in the novella.
The Indoctrination and Sheltered Beginnings of Candide
Voltaire begins his satirical work with a not-too-kind observation of what we are taught is right in the world, from the idea of wearing glasses to the concept of being pantless, all under the lens of "all is for the best:"
"Observe that noses were made to wear spectacles, and so we have spectacles. Legs were visibly instituted to be breeched, and we have breeches. Stones were formed to be quarried and to build castles; and My Lord has a very noble castle; the greatest Baron in the province should have the best house; and as pigs were made to be eaten, we eat pork all year round; consequently, those who have asserted all is well talk nonsense; they ought to have said that all is for the best."
But when Candide leaves his school and enters the world outside his safe home, he is confronted with armies, which he finds splendid as well, for different reasons: "Nothing could be smarter, more splendid, more brilliant, better drawn up than two armies… Trumpets, fifes, hautboys, drums, cannons, formed a harmony such as never been heard in hell" (Chapter Three).
Bitingly, he comments in Chapter Four: "If Columbus in an island of America had not caught the disease, which poisons the source of generation, and often indeed prevents generation, we should not have chocolate and cochineal."
Later, he also adds that "Men… must have corrupted nature a little, for they were not born wolves, and they have become wolves. God did not give them twenty-four-pounder cannons or bayonets, and they have made bayonets and cannons to destroy each other."
On Ritual and Public Good
As the character Candide explores more of the world, he observes the great irony of optimism, that it is a selfish act even as it is a selfless one to want more for the public good. In Chapter Four Voltaire writes "… and private misfortunes make the public good, so that the more private misfortunes there are, the more everything is well."
In Chapter Six, Voltaire comments on the rituals performed in the local communities: "It was decided by the University of Coimbra that the sight of several persons being slowly burned in great ceremony is an infallible secret for preventing earthquakes."
This makes the character consider what could possibly be worse than that cruel form of ritual if the Leibnizian mantra held true: "If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?" but later conceded that his teacher Pangloss "deceived me cruelly when he said that all is for the best in the world."
Voltaire's work had a tendency to discuss the taboo, to comment on the parts of society others dare not in more straightforward works than his satire. For this reason, Voltaire controversially stated in Chapter Seven, "A lady of honor may be raped once, but it strengthens her virtue," and later in Chapter 10 expanded on the idea of triumphing over worldly suffering as a personal virtue of Candide:
"Alas! My dear… unless you have been raped by two Bulgarians, stabbed twice in the belly, have had two castles destroyed, two fathers and mothers murdered before your eyes, and have seen two of your lovers flogged in an auto-da-fe, I do not see how you can surpass me; moreover, I was born a Baroness with seventy-two quarterings and I have been a kitchen wench."
Further Questioning of Man's Value on Earth
In Chapter 18, Voltaire once again visits the idea of ritual as a folly of mankind, jeering at the monks: "What! Have you no monks to teach, to dispute, to govern, to intrigue and to burn people who do not agree with them?" and later in Chapter 19 posits that "Dogs, monkeys, and parrots are a thousand times less miserable than we are" and "The malevolence of men revealed itself to his mind in all of its ugliness."
It was at this point that Candide, the character, realized that the world is almost wholly lost to "some evil creature," but there is a practical optimism in being adaptable to what the world still offers in its limited goodness, as long as one realizes the truth of where mankind has come to:
"Do you think… that men have always massacred each other, as they do today? Have they always been liars, cheats, traitors, brigands, weak, flighty, cowardly, envious, gluttonous, drunken, grasping, and vicious, bloody, backbiting, debauched, fanatical, hypocritical, and silly?"
Closing Thoughts from Chapter 30
Ultimately, after years of travel and hardships, Candide asks the ultimate question: would it be better to die or to continue doing nothing:
"I should like to know which is worse, to be raped a hundred times by Negro pirates, to have a buttock cut off, to run the gauntlet among the Bulgarians, to be whipped and flogged in an auto-da-fé, to be dissected, to row in a galley, in short, to endure all the miseries through which we have passed, or to remain here doing nothing?"
Work, it is, then, that Voltaire posits will keep the mind occupied from the eternal pessimism of reality, the understanding that all of mankind has been dominated by an evil creature bent on war and destruction rather than peace and creation for, as he puts it in Chapter 30, "Work keeps at bay three great evils: boredom, vice, and need."
"Let us work without theorizing," Voltaire says, "… 'tis the only way to make life endurable."